The Waste Land

Matthew Arnold’s view of culture as “a study of perfection” by every man is contradicted by Eliot in “The Waste Land.” Arnold felt that this culture could only prove beneficial “when there is a national glow of life and thought, when the whole of society is in the fullest measure permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive” (1596). Immediately we see two themes emerging: 1) That the entire country must join together in their pursuit of sweetness and light, and 2) that there must be a sort of appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding them. In Eliot, however, cases can be made against both of these points. For the first part, Eliot uses fragmentation in his poem to suggest a sort of chaos and un-unified-ness that was pervading the society at the time. All of the sudden jumps in subject matter and the abruptness that can be found in “The Waste Land” might be suggesting that society is actually just a scattered conglomeration of many individuals, not all striving for the same end goal of goodness and moral virtue. Additionally, Eliot employs countless quotations in his text. By quoting lines from all different sorts of literary genres, Eliot is once again pointing out the fact that the nation and its inhabitants are not all striving towards that same goal and that they don’t all hold the same ideals.

The second part of Arnold’s culture—the appreciation of beauty part—can also be seen as critiqued by Eliot in his poem. Even from the beginning, T.S. Eliot puts a very counter-traditional interpretation of the feelings that generally accompany each season. By saying that “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land,” the usual view of Spring as a happy time full of new birth and hope is turned completely upside down (2298). There are also many instances of stanzas depicting a very bleak outlook (it is called  The Waste Land, after all), and all of the talk of the “dead men [who] lost their bones” and the “rats’ alley” gives a somewhat different perspective than the culture of Arnold that is striving for goodness (2301). Arnold’s culture also had to be vibrant and alive, full of vitality; Eliot’s characters are often lifeless and pale: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (2299). Caught in the sort of “in between zone,” this person is unable to either talk and participate in the national movement nor can he use his eyes to look around and appreciate the beauty in the world around him.


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